Seoul’s metro operator is seeking to raise the age limit for free subway rides, citing the growing number of elderly passengers and its impact on the firm’s already-weak balance sheet, a lawmaker revealed Wednesday.
In a petition submitted to the Finance Ministry on Sept. 7 and released by Rep. Shim Jae-chul of the ruling Saenuri Party, Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corp. asked the government to adjust the minimum age of passengers entitled to free rides from the current 65 to 70.
It also proposed that the beneficiaries be charged 50 percent of the fare, instead of being given full exemption.
The metro operator, funded by Seoul City, runs subway line numbers 5 to 8 in the capital, carrying over 2.8 million daily.
Free access to public transport is a core part of the country’s welfare package for the elderly, the disabled and others recognized by the government for their contributions to the nation. It was introduced in 1984.
Due to the increase in the elderly population, the number of holders of free subway passes has been rising by an average of 13 percent annually, accounting for 14 percent of all passengers in 2015.
Over the years, SMRT saw losses snowballing from 198.7 billion won ($176.8 million) in 2012 to 271 billion won in 2015.
The national welfare policy will incur further losses of 141.5 billion won of its potential revenue this year, the firm said, demanding the central government cover the amount with state subsidies.
However, the Ministry of Strategy and Finance refused the demand, saying the operator is responsible for covering the charges related to the elderly and the disabled.
“It is the local government’s role to take care of the urban railways and it would lead to fairness issues among regions if government expenditure was provided for the matter,” the ministry said.
SMRT on Wednesday stuck to its stance, saying a change is inevitable.
“The sociocultural environment has changed and so have people’s perceptions about the necessity of the program, as witnessed in the altered stance of the Korea Senior Citizens Association,” the city-run subway operator said. The senior citizens’ group had last year proposed that the age at which citizens are considered elderly should be raised to 70.
The metro firm plans to present the agenda to a December meeting of the nation’s rail and subway operators, and hopes to come up with a joint petition or other collective action plans.
By Jo He-rim (firstname.lastname@example.org)